ITS TWO YEARS ON AND NEW ENTRANTS STAY THE COURSE
New entrants to farming are
rare these days, but one
couple has been given a
chance with a lifetime
tenancy. Jeremy Hunt went
to find out how they have
survived their first two years
AS one of dairy farmings few new entrants, Colin Ewbanks only consolation over the low milk price is that he has not known anything else.
But he has spent his first three years working with a milk income well below his worst scenario business projections.
Despite the pressures that are driving milk producers out of business and starving the dairy industry of new starters, Mr Ewbank and his wife Rachel remain convinced they made the right decision.
They were determined to milk cows for a living and could have had no better chance to start farming than that offered by the tenancy of Tarn Hill Farm, Clifton Dykes, near Penrith.
The 65ha (160-acre) holding resulted from the combination of two smaller farms owned by the Lowther Estate which decided to build a new dairy unit for 100-plus cows and to encourage new entrants to apply for the tenancy.
The farm was advertised, and by Apr 1997 Mr and Mrs Ewbank were milking their first cows in an impressive range of buildings that have since been awarded a commendation certificate in the Country Landowners Association architectural award scheme.
Mr Ewbank hails from Kirkby Stephen, in Cumbria, where his two older brothers have recently taken over the familys dairy farm. Having gained an honours degree from Harper Adams, he had been working for two years on the CWS management training scheme when the Tarn Hill Farm tenancy came available.
At that time the milk price was still about 25p/litre. "The price was coming back a bit but we were not deterred. We did our figures from a pessimistic standpoint. We knew the milk price would fall, but we were not expecting it to drop below 20p/litre," says Mr Ewbank.
"We only had a couple of months of the milk price in the mid-20p range and even then we were milking barely 40 cows. We have had to learn to live with diminishing income."
Labour would be a luxury. The Ewbanks run the farm themselves with occasional help from a retired local farmworker. Little has been spent on machinery. Local contractors undertake all silage making.
"We are constantly trying to improve our efficiency and to cut costs. We had some silage left-over from last year so part of the farm was deprived of fertiliser after second crop to save some cash.
"Lower feed prices have helped but they have just started to edge up, only about £3/t, but it is a move in the wrong direction. We have seen what these cows are capable of, so cutting costs on feed is not an option. You would not put low quality fuel into a Rolls Royce engine. Cheapening the diet would be counter-productive."
Even at the 18p being earned from milk going to Glanbia in Lockerbie, he does not regret his decision. "The current situation certainly keeps you sharp. It is a big challenge."
* Pedigree Holsteins
Having secured the lifetime farm business tenancy of the holding and with the intention of establishing a pedigree Holstein herd from scratch, the Ewbanks bought-in well-bred older cattle, paying around 750gns for third and fourth lactation cows.
The initial aim was to have 80 cows averaging 6500-6800 litres; there are now just over 90 cows averaging nearer 8500 litres.
"The genetic potential of cows we bought has exceeded our expectations and they have performed exceptionally well from the diet we have been using," says Colin Ewbank.
Current season silage is fed to cows from August. When the herd starts to be housed at night winter rations are introduced as an evening feed. The mix comprises 6kg Vitagold, 4kg crimped barley, plus silage to appetite, with minerals to give maintenance and 20 litres of milk.
Concentrates are fed in the parlour up to a maximum of 8kg a head a day. The herd, which calves all year round, is recording up to 11,000 litres from its best cows.
"We included barley in the mix because we have been re-seeding large areas of the farm and it has given us the chance to clean land before we return it to grass as well as produce a home-grown feed," he adds.
* Under pressure
Like all dairy units Tarn Hill Farm is under financial pressure, but the impressive planning and spacious layout of the new buildings provides an ideal environment to aim for the highest possible standards of herd management.
The bright and well-ventilated cubicle house, with automatic scrapers, has 107 cubicles with cow mattresses. The 8:16 swing-over parlour with recording facilities and ACRs is situated within the cubicle shed which is also fitted with cow handling facilities and calving boxes.
In between the cubicle house and 2000t silage pit, space has been left to enable the cubicle house to be extended should expansion be necessary. The new unit also includes a slurry store for 1.1m litres and a youngstock house.
"Starting from scratch in these difficult times was never going to be easy. The next two years are going to be tough but we have the opportunity of running our herd in an excellent set-up and are determined to look to the future," says Mr Ewbank. *